Panthers’ Rodrigues plays hero, but concern for Barkov lingers

Evan Rodrigues scored a pair of goals and Sergei Bobrovsky had another terrific outing with 18 saves as the Florida Panthers topped the Edmonton Oilers 4-1 to take a 2-0 lead in the Stanley Cup Final.

SUNRISE, Fla. — If your name is Evan, you will never forget how you played in Game 2 of this Stanley Cup Final.

The Florida PanthersEvan Rodrigues scored twice, delivered an injurious check to one of the Edmonton Oilers‘ top defenceman, and snapped the winner off a tape-to-tape pass in the high slot from the other Evan.

That would be Edmonton’s Bouchard, who committed two undisciplined penalties, got rag-dolled, dashed up, and tapped out in a 4-1 Panthers victory that has given the favoured side a convincing 2-0 series stranglehold as the championship flies seven hours northwest.

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Through 120 minutes, the lockdown Panthers have outscored the Oilers 7-1 (with a pair of empty-netters), and Rodrigues is singlehandedly outscoring Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Zach Hyman, and the rest of the Oilers forwards 3-0.

“It’s pretty cool,” smiles the undrafted journeyman, who finds himself on his fifth team and in his first final. “I’m not too worried about the point totals or goals. At the end of the day, we’re looking for wins here — and that’s all I care about.”

That’s all they care about, these juggernaut Panthers, whose selfless commitment to defence is so often the difference.

“When your captain is a Selke Trophy winner — and you heard what the best player in the world said about him the other day — it’s kind of hard for anybody else to not take the defensive side of the puck seriously. So, it starts with him. It starts with his commitment to defence,” explains Kyle Okposo. 

“And then you have our style. It really is tailored to our team and tailored to how we skate and how we play, and there’s just total buy-in because we know it works.”

Oh, about that captain.

Aleksander Barkov — so instrumental in keeping McDavid at bay and the Oilers’ power play scoreless in all seven attempts — got his chin smashed by Draisaitl halfway through the third period and did not return.

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No update on Barkov’s health was provided post-game, and not one Panther would comment on the high hit, for which Draisaitl left his feet served a roughing minor.

“This isn’t The Oprah Winfrey Show,” coach Paul Maurice said, curtly, when asked for his opinion on the play. “My feelings don’t matter.”

Added Anton Lundell, quickly tasked with eating some of Barkov’s hard minutes: “We love him and hope he’s coming back even stronger.”

Perhaps the Oilers’ only hope to swipe four of the next five games from these fast and fierce Panthers is a banged-up Barkov.

Because with Sergei Bobrovsky dialed in, and now four strong defensive periods by the Cats laying the foundation for their opportunistic offence, the pressure is all on the team jostling its lineup and double-shifting its superstars.

“It’s the Stanley Cup Final,” McDavid said. “And they’re making it tough.”

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They’re making it tough by winning the special-teams battle (1-0) and snapping Edmonton’s successful PK streak at 34, tilting the ice 5-on-5, and dressing the better goalie and the deeper lineup.

“We have worked very hard. I believe, for our veteran core over the last two years, this is Game 204,” Maurice noted. “We’ve been working really, really hard for 204 games to get to this.”

Rodrigues, the latest Cup Final folk hero, has been working 490 games for one like this. Traded to multiple teams, getting unqualified as an RFA, and bouncing around the NHL on short-term deals, Game 2’s first star is emblematic of the Panthers’ knack for uncovering unrealized talent and giving them a push.

Maurice says Rodrigues has been on a “world tour” through the lineup, playing all three forward positions and on every line.

Prior to puck drop of Game 1, Rodrigues couldn’t use the word excitement enough.

“You almost wish it was a one o’clock game, so you just wake up and start getting after it,” Rodrigues said. 

“A lot of teams have the goal of making Stanley Cup, and a lot of teams say it in their meetings. It’s cliche. But with this group, it wasn’t like: That’s our goal. It was: That’s where we’re going. And what do we have to do to get there?

Fun fact: 2024 will be the first year that the name Evan will be etched onto the Stanley Cup.

The way things are trending, we have a hunch which Evan it will be.

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Fox’s Fast Five

• Darnell Nurse took just two shifts after the 8:23 mark of the first period, when he got crunched by Rodrigues and appeared to be favouring his hip. He skated just 4:20 total.

Nurse needed examination post-game for his undisclosed injury. Two days off might help.

“I think he’ll be good to play,” Knoblauch says.

• “They don’t want you to be happy.” —DJ Khaled, Florida man

• Surely, the stripes weren’t happy by Tkachuk tricking them into a roughing call against Bouchard late in the first period by embellishing the impact. They evened the score by dinging Tkachuk with a soft hooking call on Connor Brown early in the second.

• Tkachuk has been breaking out the green and white pompoms on off nights, rooting for the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals.

The St. Louis native was classmates at Chaminade College Preparatory School with forward Jayson Tatum.

“It’s actually really cool when you think about it,” Tkachuk says. “Everyone from St. Louis, whether they were going to watch or not, with having both of us in, I’d say there’s a lot of people, especially the kids we grew up with and families and people who know us, they’re pulling for both teams. It’s super cool to have that support back home for not only myself, but for the Celtics as well.”

“It would be unreal for Chaminade and all of St. Louis if we can both win it.”

• Think it helps having a fervent hockey market in the final? 

A whopping 7.1 North American million viewers tuned into Saturday’s opener, a 43 per cent jump from the first game of Florida-Vegas in 2023. It was the Cup’s most-watched Game 1 since 2019, when the Boston Bruins faced off against the St. Louis Blues.

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